Sunday, 30 March 2014

Sutton Foster in VIOLET at the Roundabout Theatre Company

     Last summer City Center Encores began a new series that featured Off-Broadway musicals the producers thought were worth reviving. On the list for that inaugural season was VIOLET, a 1997 musical originally produced by Playwrights Horizons, with music by Jeanine Tesori ("Fun Home",  "Caroline, or Change", "Thoroughly Modern Millie", "Shrek") and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley based on a story by Doris Betts. The CIty Center performance was so successful with the audience and critics that the Roundabout, in association with a group of leading Broadway producers including the Weisslers, decided to give VIOLET its first Broadway production. Visually the show looks like an elaborate version of an Encores production. The band is on a platform at the rear of the stage, part of a unit set (David Zinn, designer) that looks like an old Southern honky tonk night spot. Kitchen chairs become a bus when necessary and a bed rolls out from under the platform for the scenes in a Fort Smith, Arkansas, bed and breakfast.
     The musical takes place in 1964. Violet (Sutton Foster) is from a small farming community in North Carolina. Some years before, she got too close to an axe her father was swinging. The wound and poor medical attention have caused her face to be disfigured by a large, ugly scar. She sees a Tulsa faith healer on television and decides to take the bus to Tulsa, believing her wound can be made to disappear. On the way she meets two soldiers, the handsome, womanizer Monty (Colin Donnell) and his Black buddy Flick (Joshua Henry). Through the journey we see Violet's evolving relationships with  these men and her encounter with the Tulsa televangelist. Of course, ultimately Violet learns that the important healing has to be spiritual, not physical. It's a simple, touching story well told.
     As the show takes us on its journey through the South of 1964, Jeanine Tesori creates songs in a variety of appropriate musical genres -- country, folk, rhythm and blues, and gospel. Her music keeps us in the time and place of the story. It also demonstrates Tesori's enormous talent and versatility -- she's one of the best post-Sondheim composers for musical theatre with an ability to write well in just about every musical genre. Brian Crawley's book is economical and fast-paced (the show lasts an hour and three quarters with no intermission) and his lyrics propel the narrative and give us insights into the characters.      
     VIOLET has a superb cast of singing actors. Sutton Foster, one of Broadway's best leading ladies, is totally convincing as Violet. Dressed in a frumpy outfit, she stands and moves as if she is trying to hide from the people around her, yet she has the strength to take what she needs from the men she encounters. Of course, Foster's such a terrific singer, you wish she had even more to sing, but VIOLET is more an ensemble piece than a star turn. Joshua Henry is superb as Flick, the Black man who is courageous enough -- or foolish enough -- to want to care for a white woman in the South in 1964. His singing brings down the house. Colin Donnell is effective as the Casanova with a conscience. In flashback scenes Alexander Gemignani plays Violet's loving father and Emerson Steele plays the young Violet.  Leigh Silverman has given the musical a simple, fluid staging that tells the story clearly.
     We saw the second preview, but you wouldn't have known that the show hasn't been running for a while. There weren't any ragged spots.
     VIOLET is a sweet musical with an lovely score and excellent performances. It's the third really good grown-up  musical I have seen this week. The audience at my performance obviously loved the show. What's not to love?
VIOLET. Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre. March 29, 2014.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Kelli O'Hara & Steven Pasquale in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY

     What a lovely surprise! I wasn't originally planning to see THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. I'm a fan of Jason Robert Brown and of many of the leading performers, but I just couldn't see paying Broadway prices to see an adaptation of a book I had no interest in reading and a movie I had no interest in seeing. Fortunately my husband talked me into seeing the musical and reasonably priced tickets were available on TDF. It's a lovely show on all counts. Jason Robert Brown's rich score is varied and beautifully supported by his rich orchestrations (all strings with piano and drums), Marsha Norman's book tells the story well and Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale are the contemporary theater's best singing romantic leads. We all know how good O'Hara is but Pasquale sounds as good as he looks. What a voice! THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is a love story and, as they must, the music and the singing come close to the powerful emotional force of opera.
     The story is a simple one. Naples born Francesca (Kelli O'Hara) met and married an American soldier who then took her to his Iowa farm where she has spent the past twenty years. Her husband (the always good Hunter Foster) adores her and she has been a dutiful wife who has never felt the same love for him. She has raised two teenage children (Derek Klena and Caitlin Kinnunen) who are devoted to her. Francesca knows something is missing from her life, something she may never have. Enter Robert (Steven Pasquale), a sexy roving photographer for National Geographic Magazine who has come to take pictures of old covered bridges in the area. Francesca and Robert are immediately drawn to each other, have a brief affair while Francesca's family is off at the State Fair and separate when the family returns. Duty trumps passion. This is a very romantic tale that requires belief in love at first sight. We have to accept that Francesca and Robert feel something more than sexual desire -- that this is an abiding love neither of them has felt before, a contrast to her comfortable, passionless marriage. Brown's rich melodies beautifully sung allow us to buy into this fantasy.
     Bartlett Sher has wisely given THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY a simple production with skeletal sets against projected landscapes. We're always aware of the remoteness of the setting, but of the proximity of the sweet but nosy neighbors. There's no dancing, but graceful movement of people and scenic elements.
         THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is really a chamber musical. The only important characters are our two lovers and Francesca's family. It falters a bit when it opens out to non-essential scenes with the neighbors or at the state fair. It would be better as a shorter show that kept its focus on the important characters. The bickering between Francesca's children and their father is not as important as their relationship to her. Unfortunately, the economics of Broadway do not favor intimate shows, so I think there was some pressure to make BRIDGES bigger than it needed to be to please a Broadway audience. The show is about Francesca and our focus should never be taken away from her. This is a minor cavil that should not keep one away from this thoroughly enjoyable show.
      There were rows of empty seats in the mezzanine at our performance. This is truly sad. THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY has the most beautiful score of any of the Broadway musicals now running, wonderful performances from Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale, a fine supporting cast and a visually lovely production. Why isn't it a hit? Yes, the major critics were lukewarm, though not dismissive. It suffers from being a musical for grown ups -- isn't that sad? ALADDIN sells out and a show like this founders. There isn't any razzamatazz or spectacle, which is what many folks want for their $100 plus dollars. There has to be a place for a beautiful show like this, but perhaps in this day and age the commercial theatre isn't the place. By the way, there are twenty-four producers listed above the title in the Playbill -- twenty-four individuals and organizations to mount a lovely, simple show.
      I'm so glad I was talked into going to THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. I highly recommend it. You'll be able to get good seats at the half-price booth or through or broadwaybox -- or better yet through tdf. It's well worth seeing. Most important, it's more than well worth hearing Brown's songs sung magnificently.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. March 27, 2014.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Tyne Daly in Terrence McNally's MOTHERS AND SONS

     Yesterday was a momentous day of theatergoing in a number of ways. We spent the afternoon seeing a brilliant musical, IF/THEN, and after a delicious meal at Turkish Cuisine, saw an absorbing old-fashioned drama with a star turn by one of our greatest actresses, Tyne Daly. I don't use the term old-fashioned to denigrate MOTHERS AND SONS. It is shaped in the tradition of the best plays of the last century as it speaks to recent issues (the history of gay men over the past generation) and the timeless theme of how mothers can hold the impossible hope that their children can save them from their own unhappiness. One of the ways in which yesterday's double feature of IF/THEN and MOTHERS AND SONS was momentous was that two packed Broadway houses watched works that dealt with same-sex love and relationships as commonplace. There was none of the gasping and tittering when two men or women kissed that there would have been a generation ago. We are accepted now on Broadway, even on television, though there are still some ghastly negative stereotypes like Eric Stonestreet's insufferable camping on MODERN FAMILY. The civilized world has come a long way in my lifetime.
     That advancement in acceptance of gay people in one theme of MOTHERS AND SONS. Terrence McNally has spent much of his career chronicling the experience of gay men from the denizens of a bathhouse in THE RINK, to the sad opera queens of THE LISBON TRAVIATA, to the men trying to find love in the age of AIDS in LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! to chronicles of gay life like SOME MEN. MOTHERS AND SONS gives us a contemporary gay family. Cal (Frederick Weller), now in his late 40s, has lived through a period when men had to hide their relationships and had difficulty overcoming the shame they learned at home. He also survived the age of AIDS, unlike his first love and partner of six years, Andre. Now Cal is a successful money manager who lives in a posh apartment on the West side of Central Park with his cute younger husband Will (Bobby Steggert), and their son Bud (Grayson Taylor). Will is a writer whose stories have been published in THE NEW YORKER. He's young enough to assume that gay men can live any way they choose. Will is also a devoted father. This is as ideal a family as one can find.
     When the curtain goes up we see Cal standing silently with Katherine (Tyne Daly), the mother of his former lover, Andre, who died of AIDS twenty years ago. MOTHERS AND SONS is a sequel to McNally's short play, ANDRE's MOTHER, written during the AIDS crisis. The play took place on the day of Andre's memorial service in Central Park and was a testy dialogue between Cal and Katherine. When this play begins, Cal has not heard from Katherine since the memorial service. She has dropped in ostensibly to return Andre's diary, which Cal had sent her twenty years before. Katherine's husband recently died and she is on her way to Europe. However, Katherine herself is not sure what she wants from this visit. Katherine is a woman filled with anger, not only at the death of her son, but at the fact that Andre did not save her from her unhappiness. Katherine wants revenge for her unhappy, unfulfilled life. She's still looking for a cause for her son's homosexuality -- someone must have turned him gay -- and for revenge for whoever gave him AIDS. Katherine is not about to appreciate that Cal, who took care of Andre during his horrible illness even though Andre put him in danger, was also grief stricken. In essence, Katherine wants revenge for her life. Of course, she is angry at the loving family she is visiting. How dare they live this ideal life when her son is dead and she is unhappy. Cal and Will are polite and forbearing, but eventually stand up for their right to live as they choose. Their son wonders if Katherine is the grandmother he is missing.
     Katherine is a monster, but she is a woman we come to sympathize with. Her unhappiness is greatly from choices she has made -- to enter knowingly into a loveless marriage and to expect too much from her son, then reject him when he didn't make her the center of his life and when she discovered that he was gay. She wants to punish someone but ultimately is punishing herself. Tyne Daly, who was magnificent as that monster mother, Madame Rose, in a revival of GYPSY a quarter-century ago, is both fierce and vulnerable in this fine play. She doesn't like being in this home, but she can't bring herself to leave. She is angry at the loving family she sees, but on some level she needs to connect to it. This is one of the great acting performances I have seen in my long lifetime. Frederick Weller provides a nice contrast to Daly. Tall and lanky next to her solidity; charming next to her spikeyness, his Cal resists Katherine but also needs to connect to her. Bobby Steggert's Will is affable, but it's clear that he's a tough cookie who will not allow Katherine to upset his family. These two fine actors match Daly's bravura performance. And little Grayson Taylor is a pro as eight year old Bud, a kid full of questions. Sheryl Kaller has allowed her actors to do their best work. Everything looks natural in Will and Cal's home -- except Katherine in her bright red dress, perfect for her personality.
     I was delighted to see the full house for MOTHERS AND SONS. It deserves to be seen. Who would want to miss an excellent play brilliantly acted?
MOTHERS AND SONS. Golden Theatre. March 26, 2014.

Idina Menzel in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's IF/THEN

     Hooray! an intelligent, witty, tuneful adult musical about life in the twenty-first century! And on Broadway, no less! Better yet, IF/THEN is not based on a movie. Well, that's not quite true. It is likely that the creators got their idea from the 1998 film, SLIDING DOORS, but this is not an adaptation but a new take on the same idea. Elizabeth (Idina Menzel), a recently divorced woman from Phoenix, moves to New York City. She goes to Madison Square Park to meet two old college friends, Kate (LaChanze), a lesbian kindergarten teacher, and Lucas (Anthony Rapp), an activist. Lucas, who is bisexual, was a college boyfriend  She also runs into Josh (James Snyder), a doctor recently returned from his second tour of duty as a medic in Afghanistan. At this point, her life and the lives of her best friends could go in different directions depending on the choices they make in this park on this sunny afternoon. The rest of the show moves back and forth between these two sets of possibilities.  In one, she falls in love with and marries Josh and becomes the mother of two children while teaching urban planning at a local college. In the other, she accepts a big job in the city planning office and moves up the career ladder. The musical dramatizes the impossible choices some women have to make between family and career. We also see in the two narratives the stresses and strains on a lesbian relationship and a gay male relationship. Can Kate and her partner Anne (Jenn Collella) deal with infidelity? How do Lucas and his partner David (Jason Tam) deal with parenting? One of the many lovely things about IF/THEN is the way that it shows that all couples, gay or straight, face the same dilemmas.
     The narrative problem the authors (Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) and director (Michael Greif) had to face was how to make sure the audience understood this split narrative in which the central characters alternate between one route their lives could take and another. Thanks to clear writing, some crucial signals (Elizabeth is Liz in one narrative and Beth in the other) and a color scheme (red for one narrative, blue for another), all this is quite clear.
     The score (music by Tom Kitt) is tuneful and varied. Kitt's music has a little bit of everything -- rock, folk, power ballads (Idina Menzel gets the best 11 o'clock number since "Roses's Turn"), and good old-fashioned show tunes. Actually some of the sweetest music sung by the co-stars, particularly the music given to the gay male couple. If one sometimes feels that they are not appreciating Kitt's tunes, it is because you don't want to miss one work of Yorkey's witty, literate, often touching lyrics.
     IF/THEN is also unabashedly a New York musical, a celebration of the joys and sorrows of living in the metropolis.
     The show has been given a perfect production. The cast is uniformly excellent. In some ways, IF/THEN is an old-fashioned star vehicle. Idina Menzel is onstage for almost the entire show and she gives a real star turn. She has powerful support from her three co-stars Anthony Rapp, LaChanze and James Snyder. Jason Tam also gets a couple of lovely numbers. Everyone sings well but, equally important, everyone acts well. Greif's constantly moving staging captures the pace of life in the city. IF/THEN is also one of the most stunningly beautiful productions I have seen in a long while. Mark Wendland's simple, but effective constantly shifting scenery and Kenneth Posner's lighting design hd the audience literally oohing and aahing.
     Over the past few years, all the really good musicals I have seen have been off-Broadway, while Broadway producers seemed interested only in kiddie shows, retreads of movies that don't need to be musicals (KING KONG?? Really???), and jukebox musicals. IF/THEN reminds one of the days when musical theatre was for grownups.
     If I gave stars, this would get 5.
     The Richard Rodgers Theatre (formerly the 46th Street Theatre), site of some of the great musicals of the past, has been beautifully restored and refurbished. The auditorium looks lovely and the large, new, modern bathrooms are among Broadway's best. This is one of the more pleasant Broadway theatres.
IF/THEN. Richard Rodgers Theatre. March 27, 2014.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

James Lapine's adaptation of Moss Hart's ACT ONE at Lincoln Center Theater

     Because of the superb performances of Santino Fontana, Andrea Martin and particularly Tony Shaloub, ACT ONE is worth seeing, but this is one of those "why?" shows. Why bother turning Moss Hart's memoir of his apprentice years in show business in the 1920s into a giant, high-budget theatrical production? Clocking in at almost three hours, the play is full of incident, but without a point of view that might make it absorbing. There are two narrative strands here. One is of the poor, uneducated Jewish immigrant who finds a place in theatre. His best friends and fellow office boys will also find success. The other more interesting strand is the fledgling playwright's first collaboration with the already famous George S. Kaufman, brilliantly played by Tony Shaloub, who also plays a handful of other roles. All this is rendered in a great deal of detail. There's no real focus here and no answer to the crucial question the play must ask -- why a dramatization of Moss Hart's memoir? Why has Lapine written this? It's interesting for us theatre historians, but do many people now even know who Moss Hart was? The plays is one of those love letters to the theatre and to those fascinating people who were its major figures in the Golden Age of Broadway.
     This is a giant production on an elaborate revolving stage. Beowulf Borritt's set is a complex three-level affair. The period costumes by Jane Greenwood range convincingly from dowdy to chic. James Lapine's action is as busy as the giant revolve. The leading performers somewhat justify this show. Santino Fontana is the most winning leading man in the theatre these days. Here he gives a charming, hyper-kinetic performance as the young Moss Hart, bounding up and down the set's many staircases. Tony Shaloub is masterful as Hart's father, the older Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Andrea Martin is funny and touching as Moss Hart's eccentric amount who introduces him to theatre, then plays the rowdy producer Frieda Fishbein and Kaufman's elegant wife. These performances are greater testaments to the magic of theatre than Lapine's script.
ACT ONE. Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center Theatres, March 25, 2014.      

Saturday, 22 March 2014

STAGE KISS by Sarah Ruhl at Playwrights Horizons

     STAGE KISS is an entertaining backstage comedy that's a bit of KISS ME KATE, a bit of Noel Coward's PRIVATE LIVES with some backstage farce a la NOISES OFF thrown in. It's a bit too long for its premise and only sags when it tries to be philosophical.
     Like the classic Cole Porter/Sam and Bella Spewak musical KISS ME KATE, STAGE KISS brings together an estranged, once passionate couple as the stars of a new play. This one isn't THE TAMING OF A SHREW but a really awful 1930s play being produced by a regional theatre in New Haven. The play within a play seems more like a bad version of 1930s Bette Davis movies than a stage play, but it allows for a lot of funny schtick. Playwright Sarah Ruhl's focus is on the meaning of a stage kiss. Who is kissing, the characters or the actors? How is our response to simulated sex on stage different from our response to film sex or to pornography? We see a lot of kissing scenes between people who have strong feelings for each other and people who feel nothing for their scene partner. What we mostly see is the rekindling of the romance between the two stars, She (I hate plays with nameless characters), played by Jessica Hecht and He played by Dominic Fumosa. She is now married to a successful stockbroker and has a teenage daughter (her affair with He [Him?] was sixteen years ago), and He is in a relationship with a sappy midwestern kindergarten teacher. Of course, He and She are back together from their first rehearsal kiss. The play they are in is directed by an unbelievably incompetent director (Patrick Kerr), who is in a relationship with the understudy (an hilarious Michael Cyril Creighton), as bad at acting as his lover is at directing. There is a lot of truly funny stuff, but the second act is nowhere as good as the first. Ruhl makes the mistake of getting serious at the end and her serious speeches are filled with platitudes.
     Jessica Hecht is a favorite of New York critics. I find her an acquired taste that I haven't quite acquired. She's a very mannered actress with an eccentric way of delivering lines. She's more like actresses of the last century who were immediately identifiable by their way of speaking (Hepburn, Shirley Booth, Margaret Sullavan, Barbara Bel Geddes, Eileen Heckart). We don't have many actresses now that you can identify by their first line. Hecht almost sings her lines. She's a rail thin woman who can do almost anything with her body. She's a bag of acting tics that she takes from role to role. One either likes them or one doesn't. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Dominic Fumosa can play comedy well. He's stunningly handsome and totally charming. Is he eccentric enough to be believable as Jessica Hecht's romantic partner? Probably not, but he's a real theatre leading man. The rest of the cast is fine. Rebecca Taichman paces the play's farce-like scenes effectively.
     I could quibble and say that the plays within the play are unbelievable bad. No one would produce them. No director this incompetent would get work in the professional theatre (I hope). Michael Frayn's NOISES OFF does backstage farce so perfectly that no other play matches up. STAGE KISS is fun, another hark back to the old days when going to the theatre for some laughs was considered a perfectly good way to spend two hours. At the prices Playwrights Horizons members pay, it still is.
STAGE KISS by Sarah Ruhl. Playwrights Horizons. March 22, 2014.

THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST by Quiara Allegria Hudes at Second Stage

     A years and a half ago I raved about the second play in Quiara Allegria Hudes's Elliott trilogy, the Pulitzer Prize winning WATER BY THE SPOONFUL. Now we have the even better final panel of the triptych, THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST. Where WATER BY THE SPOONFUL was built on jazz and the music of John Coltrane, this play is built on Puerto Rican music, played between and sometimes during scenes by a wonderful live combo.
     Elliott (played as before by the charismatic Armando Riesco), the physically and psychically wounded Iraq war veteran, is now a successful actor playing a marine in a film about the Iraq War being shot in Jordan. He is still trying to make amends for killing an innocent civilian, an act that has haunted him for years, but he finds during this play that he must forgive himself and does in the ritual that ends the play. He falls in love with an actress on the film, Shar, who is multi-ethnic and can speak Arabic. He also befriends Ali, an Iraqui illegally living in Jordan to avoid the chaos of his home country. Elliott's cousin and best friend, Yar (Lauren Velez), has moved out of her center city Philadelphia apartment into a a humble home in a Latino neighborhood in North Philadelphia. There she cooks for her poor neighbors and, like her aunt, Elliott's mother, engages in some community organizing. Yar falls in love with Agostin (Tony Plana in a superb performance), a married man twice her age looking for real love and the possibility of having a child.
     All this recounting of the narrative tells you little about Hudes's lovely play. Though all the characters are great storytellers THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST is more about characters, relationships and language than about narrative. The beauty is in the poetic speech, in the loveliness of the spirits of these people whom one comes to care deeply about during the two-plus hours of the play. Corny as this sounds, one can only describe that play as a celebration of the human spirit. I can tell you that my audience was rapt and were so excited by the play that they enthusiastically applauded every scene -- and every musical interlude. After two nights of seeing plays about dysfunctional families, it was refreshing to see and hear a celebration of all kinds of love and of the power of language and of music.
     The production has been beautifully directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudsom with a splendid two-level unit set by Michael Carnahan. The cast is uniformly excellent, but special bravos to Tony Plana who fully inhabits the life-affirming Agostin. Like all of Hudes's characters he is flawed, but filled with a love for living.
     There's nothing sappy about THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST. It is both tough and life-affirming. The language is as musical as the wonderful Latin rhythms the combo plays.
THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST. Second Stage Theatre. March 21, 2014.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

APPROPRIATE by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins at the Signature Theatre

     In an interview in the SIGNATURE STORIES magazine, playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins says that APPROPRIATE is his response to the American tradition of domestic drama, that he took the ingredients of a number of classic plays and recombined them to create his work. One can certainly see the influences from Sam Shepard (the father in Will Eno's THE OPEN HOUSE, also at the Signature, seems to come right out of Shepard's BURIED CHILD), Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman and more. We have the battle over the legacy and memory of a dead patriarch and vicious sibling rivalry. We also have a rotting Southern mansion that contains memories of its dark past. Jacobs-Jenkins has managed to combine these elements into an entertaining drama. There's no doubt that Jacobs-Jenkins is a skilled playwright with a mastery of vibrant theatrical language. APPROPRIATE doesn't have the oddball poetry of Sam Shepard's BURIED CHILD, though it begins with a visual reminder of that play, nor does it have the haunting sense of spiritual emptiness that underlies Edward Albee's plays. What it does have that is original is a sense of the past, even the recent past, as less definite than we like to believe.
       There's no love felt by the Lafayette siblings. Toni, the eldest, played brilliantly by Johanna Day, spreads bitterness and recrimination indiscriminately. She knows she has become a monster, but can't help herself. Her husband has divorced her and her teenage son Rhys (Mike Faist) can't wait to get away from her. Toni has planned a family weekend to organize her father's belongings for auction so they can pay back the half-million dollars owed to the bank--the family went into debt to pay the father's medical bills during his long illness. Her affluent younger brother Ainsley (Alex Dreier) has arrived with his Jewish wife (Maddie Corman), and their two children. Also on the scene is the youngest brother Frank, now Franz, who hasn't been heard from for ten years. Franz has been trying to rebuild his life in Portland after having gotten into a lot of trouble, including impregnating a thirteen-year-old girl. To his siblings, he is "the pervert." He has arrived with his fiancee, a new agey woman who calls herself River. Toni wanted everyone to share rosy memories of their father, but she seems to be the only person who holds such memories. Franz wants his family to forgive him and welcome him back into the fold, but Toni isn't the forgiving type. She makes Martha in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF seem like sweetness itself. The younger generation seem upset and baffled by the feuds that eventually erupt into a full scale brawl.
     Among the piles of stuff in this old house--the father was a hoarder-- are artifacts of the darker racial history of our country including an album of photos of lynching. This, too, becomes a bone of contention. Ainsley and Toni want to put it on the market--it's worth hundred of thousands of dollars. Franz wants to cleanse the family of its past. Rachel wants it to be used to teach racial sensitivity. River feels the ghostly hand of the past when she looks through it. Thirteen-year-old Cassidy takes pictures of it and sends them to her friends.
     Nothing is resolved in APPROPRIATE. Jacobs-Jenkins wisely does not give his audience a pat ending. The family does not unite in a group hug. In fact, Toni tells her brothers to pretend she's dead so that they can fabricate good memories of her. She will do the same for them. We never solve the mystery of the origin of the lynching photos or the Ku Klux Klan hood that briefly appears. What he does give us is a hugely entertaining play. Yes, it is, as he claims, an homage to American domestic drama, but it never seems like an overstuffed bag of cliches as AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY does. IT always seems freshly minted. There are also moments that are hilariously funny.
     Highest praise is due to Liesl Tommy's direction and the superb ensemble, particularly Johanna Day who allows us to see Toni's monstrousness, but maintain sympathy for her. It would be easy to make Toni unbearable--she is, after all--but Day allows us to see the pain under the cruelty. She has lost everything--husband, son and rosy memories of her father. Everyone else manages to make their characters more than stereotypes. Kudos, too to Clint Ramos's beautiful set that eventually takes on a life of its own, and the soundscape created by Broken Chord. The ever-present sound of cicadas, a mating sound that is also a death knell, sets an eery mood.
     Highly recommended.
APPROPRIATE by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. Pershing Square Signature Center. March 19, 2014.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Will Eno's THE OPEN HOUSE at the Signature Theatre

     I have to admit that I came to THE OPEN HOUSE as one who had never read or seen a Will Eno play. Until three years ago, most of my theatergoing had been in London and Mr. Eno's work doesn't seem to have crossed the pond yet. Right now he is represented in NEw York by THE OPEN HOUSE at the Signature and THE REALISTIC JONESES doing good business of Broadway, so he must be doing something right. On the basis of THE OPEN HOUSE, I am hard put to say what that "something" is. I found THE OPEN HOUSE to be funny in spots, but hollow--or was it that hollowness is the point? Is the play picking up where Edward Albee left off and giving us another version of the existential emptiness under our ideal of family. Another version of "Family is a fiction and ultimately we are alone."
     We begin THE OPEN HOUSE with another of those dysfunctional families that are the raw material of so much classic American drama. There's a realistic living room that looks lived in. The clan has gathered to celebrate the parents' wedding anniversary. There's a grown son and daughter who don't seem to have anything much to say to each other, an uncle out of work and grieving over the loss of his wife, a mother who seems totally disconnected from what is happening around her and can only speak in platitudes and a particularly nasty wheelchair-bound patriarch. Father (no one has names here) has suffered a stroke and has heart problems, but can summon up the energy to lash out at every member of the family who is present (one son has stayed away). He despises them all and seems to despise his wife. Father's attacks are cruel, but funny, fortunately. His children ask why their family can't be a normal loving clan, but perhaps the generic names suggest that they are just that. Love, is withheld here or perhaps non-existent. Even the dog has run off from this alienating domestic scene. This picture of family life goes on a bit too long and is more nasty sitcom than Albee, sort of a "Mama's Family" without the accents. Then things get surreal. One by one, family members leave to be replaced by other characters played by the same actors. A real estate agent comes to prepare the house for an Open House that afternoon. Father didn't tell anyone that he has put the house on the market (he has announced that he has written his children out of his will). A handyman with a drug problem comes to check out necessary renovations and starts pulling the wallpaper off the wall to see what's underneath. A prospective buyer and his wife come in and look around. Left without his family to attack, Father becomes increasingly disoriented, has a heart attack and is taken out in an ambulance. He no longer rules his own house. At the end of the play, a new set of characters, played by the same actors, have taken over the house. They seem like pleasant, well-meaning, vacuous, people, an improvement over the family that has departed.  Bad thing happen in THE OPEN HOUSE. The daughter has an automobile accident and has to be taken to the hospital. The father has a heart attack. Life goes on.
     What does all this add up to? Our greatest playwrights have told us that American families do not live up to the ideal we have set for family. Does Eno's play add anything to the mix? There's some hint in the title. The focus of the play is the house that can move from family to family. It has a history -- there's other wallpaper behind the current covering. It can be changed, renovated. The history is ongoing. The new owners seen to be nice, loving people with two sons they care for. Perhaps all the games that stuff the living room closet, mementos of family togetherness, will be used again. Still with then humor, the easy, funny nasty barbs, there's a twenty-first century hip cynicism, an avoidance of facing big emotions head on. Hatred, lovelessness are merely to be laughed at. I'm not crazy about O'Neill's lumbering, overlong, repetitive sagas, but there's a passion there, a realization that there are real feelings under the barbs. Eno is detached and we are detached from and superior to his characters. It's a cool perspective, in the sense of chilly, but I'm sure for many it is "cool" in the sense of "hip."
     I couldn't fault the production, under Oliver Butler's direction. Peter Friedman's timing of the father's barbs is masterful and Carolyn McCormick is properly spaced out as his wife. Hannah Bos brings just the right amount of impersonal bonhomie to the realtor and Danny McCarthy is appropriately mercuric as the handyman who keeps going out to his truck for self-medication of various kinds. It's an excellent ensemble.
     I found THE OPEN HOUSE enjoyable but troubling, more for playwright's point of view than for what happens on stage. I'm eager to see THE REALISTIC JONESES to discover more about Will Eno's work.
THE OPEN HOUSE. Pershing Square Signature Center, March 18, 2014.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Brecht/Weill THREEPENNY OPERA at Atlantic Theatre

     The history of New York revivals of the Kurt Weill/Berthold Brecht collaboration, THE THREEPENNY OPERA, has been a checkered one. Two Broadway revivals, one starring Sting and one with Cindy Lauper, were critical and box office failures in great part because Broadway and THREEPENNY OPERA by definition don't mix. As the title suggests, the Brecht/Weill piece is supposed to be cheap looking. Broadway audiences don't pay $150 for a cheap looking show, nor are they eager to see a show that attacks their core values. The work is also a scathing attack on capitalism, pointing out that bank robbers are not as larcenous as bankers. Anything and anyone can be bought in THREEPENNY OPERA. It's appropriate that much of the work takes place in a whorehouse. There was a successful revival in the 1970s at Lincoln Center Theatre. However, the most famous revival was the one that ran for years during the 1950s at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) in Greenwich Village, featuring Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya. That production was one of the key events in the resurgence of Off-Broadway theatre in the 1950s.  The Mark Blitzstein translation, used in the current production, was a classic of its kind. The intimate Atlantic Theatre is an appropriate venue for this work, which demands intimacy and simplicity.  
      THE THREEPENNY OPERA, based on John Gay's 18th century musical, THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, tells the story of a super thief and womanizer (today we'd call him a sex addict), Macheath, who manages to have no police record because the police chief, Tiger Brown, is an old war buddy and current recipient of a share of Macheath's proceeds. Though he has a girlfriend in every brothel in London, Macheath has married Polly Peachum, the daughter of the couple who control the beggars in London, taking a commission from everything the beggars bring in. Even poverty is a business in this version of London. The Peachums set out to avenge Macheath's dishonoring of their daughter. Brecht's message is, essentially, "follow the money." In a society built of thievery and bribery, the winner is the person who can offer the highest bribes and who can extort most effectively.
      The Atlantic Theatre production, directed by Martha Clarke, is not perfect by any means, but it is well worth seeing. The musical values are very good. The band, using Weill's wonderful orchestrations, is excellent and the singers are all fine. I would have liked more vocal contrast between Laura Osnes's Polly and Sally Murphy's Jenny. Both have lovely lyric soprano voices, but I think Jenny needs a tougher sound. Still, I can't fault Murphy's performance of the classic "Pirate Jenny." She also brought more intensity to her acting than anyone else. Michael Park, the Macheath, had a solid baritone voice. Everyone else sang as well as their characters demanded. It may seem odd to begin with the musical values, but THREEPENNY OPERA is revived because of the brilliant musical numbers. It's a great score, encompassing everything from Bach-like fugues and chorales to tangos and foxtrots. This production does justice to this great score and that is reason enough to see it. There's even a musical bonus, an extra solo for Lucy, taken from the Brecht/Weill "Das Berliner Requiem."
        At this point (the show is still in previews), the dialogue scenes need work. They seem underrehearsed and lack any rhythm. This is particularly a problem in musical theatre. The dialogue must have as much forward momentum and definite tempo as the music. Clarke seems to know what to do with performers singing, but not what to do with performers talking. Every great veteran actors like F. Murray Abraham and Mary Beth Peil as the elder Peachums seem to be at a bit of a loss in terms of finding a style for the work. Clarke's staging is eccentric. For some reason, she avoids placing actors in the center of the playing area, favoring the extreme sides. Perhaps this is her idea of Brechtian alienation, but it means that much of the playing area is empty for long periods of time. She does use a curtain that only covers the bottom half of the stage, a Brechtian device, but doesn't use the titles Brecht wanted to introduce each scene. There is no need to adhere to Brecht's directorial style. What the production lacks, however, is any consistent directorial style to replace Brecht's ideas. The production may find itself with more previews, but I think it needed a different director.
       Nonetheless, one doesn't get many opportunities to see this twentieth century musical theatre masterpiece and the music is performed very well. That's reason enough to see this production.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA. Atlantic Theater Company, March 15, 2014.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Cole Horibe in David Henry Hwang's KUNG FU at the Signature Theatre

     A dramatic biography of Kung Fu star Bruce Lee sounds like an odd choice for a play, but Hwang's script, Leigh Silverman's direction, Sonya Tayeh's choreography and an extraordinary star turn by young Cole Horibe combine to create a simply amazing theatrical experience.
     This is not your conventional linear biography. Hwang has layered experiences in Lee's tragically short life (he was 32 when he died). We begin in a Seattle dance studio where Lee, a sometime waiter, encounters a young Japanese American Martha Graham student. Lee couldn't be more cocky or eager to become a success in his new home. We see in this pas de deux how his martial arts, learned in part from street fighting in Hong Kong, merge with her dance. Lee becomes a successful Kung Fu teacher but wants more. Seattle is not enough. He wants Hollywood, but Hollywood is not ready for an Asian star, particularly one as pushy as Lee. The play ends with Lee reluctantly deciding to work in the film industry in his home town of Hong Kong (the rest is history). In between, we have flashbacks to Lee's relationship with his father, an opium-smoking actor. The father (brilliantly played by Francis Yu) remains a presence in Lee's psyche. Indeed, one of the most powerful scenes in the play is an imaginary stick  fight between Lee and his father. Throughout, we see Lee's relationship to his devoted non-Asian wife and his young son (Bradley Fong, who also plays young Bruce). In KUNG FU, Hwang deals with some of his favorite topics -- the place of Asians in American society,  and the relationship of traditional Asian parents to their rebellious children who want success in the New World. As usual, he has written a play that is absorbing, but also a crowd pleaser. This isn't great drama that plumbs depths or scales heights, but a good script that's a vehicle for a thrilling production.
     What can one say about this production? First, Cole Horibe is simply brilliant in meeting the almost superhuman demands of the central role. Actor, dancer, martial arts specialist -- he has mastered all the skills necessary -- and he makes it all look effortless. On top of all that he's a handsome, charming performer. The ensemble that supports him, playing multiple roles and executing spectacular moves, is simply amazing. David Zinn's set begins as a realistic looking dance studio, but simply transforms into the other locales, aided by Ben Stanton's lighting design.
       The Signature is simply the most pleasant theatre center in New York. The audience for KUNG FU was certainly a mixture. The usual geriatrics (the core audience for serious theatre these days), Asian-American dads with their sons, guys who obviously are Bruce Lee fans, young couples. The show deserves a wide audience and a long run. It's terrific! And you can buy your very own Bruce Lee action figures in the theatre bookshop!!
     Highly recommended.
KUNG FU. The Pershing Square Signature Center. March 12, 2014.

John van Druten's LONDON WALL at the Mint Theatre

     John van Druten had a successful career as a playwright and screenwriter in England and the United States. Most of his best known American works were adaptations: I REMEMBER MAMA and I AM A CAMERA (a source for the musical CABARET). He also wrote the crypto-gay comedy BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE. His image is that of a talented commercial playwright, but not one of the major British or American writers. Nonetheless, the Mint Theatre, a small playhouse tucked away on the third floor of a midtown office building that specializes in producing forgotten dramas, has done us a service by mounting an excellent revival of van Druten's 1931 play LONDON WALL.
     LONDON WALL is a depiction of the possibilities for women who need to work. The setting is a London law office. The senior partner recalls that his father, who founded the firm, always said that women would be a disruptive force in the workplace. It's a generation later and the all the secretaries are now single women making ridiculously small salaries. Their hope is to find a husband who will take them out of the workforce. In the meantime, they must be attractive to men without being "ruined" by them. Sexual harassment is a constant problem, particularly with a junior solicitor who sees himself as God's gift to women. The central character is the youngest of the secretaries, nineteen-year-old Pat Milligan (Elise Kibler). Pat has a very naive young admirer, Hec Hammond (Christopher Sears), but he's as poor as she is and not very romantic. When Mr. Brewer (Stephen Plunkett), the predatory junior solicitor, starts asking her out to dinner and the theatre, Pat finds it difficult to say no, despite the warnings of the older employee who befriends her. We see Pat's story against the experiences of the older secretaries: the worldly-wise senior employee who has been waiting ten years for her lover to propose to her, the fun-loving peroxide blonde who knows how to "have a good time" without getting into trouble, and the   happy worker sporting her new engagement ring. The senior partner of the firm seems a model of professionalism. Like a deus ex machine, he tends to show up just in time to avert disaster. There's also an extremely eccentric fairy godmother of sorts.
     In LONDON WALL, van Druten, always a good entertainer,  knows how to deal with a serious subject while writing a highly enjoyable play. Davis McCallum has given the play a pitch perfect, briskly moving production. Marion Williams's set seems convincingly authentic as do Martha Halley's costumes. The nine-member cast couldn't be better. It's hard to single anyone out -- this is a fine ensemble performance. The British accents are convincing, if not authentic.
      To quote one of my favorite Noel Coward lyrics, "I couldn't have liked it more."
LONDON WALL by John van Druten. Mint Theatre. March 12, 2014

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Charles Busch's THE TRIBUTE ARTIST at 59E59

     Charles Busch is the last direct link to the Theatre of the Ridiculous movement that began with Ronald Tavel and John Vaccaro, then was personified by Charles Ludlam, who broke off from Tavel and Vaccaro's company to form his own Ridiculous Theatre Company, which thrived in the Village from the beginnings of gay liberation through the age of AIDS (Ludlam died of HIV related pneumonia in 1987). The practitioners of Theatre of the Ridiculous created an important form of gay theatre that involved drag and camp. Many of its productions were send ups of B movies or adaptations of classics that had a camp components (Ludlum's CAMILLE, for instance). Busch began in the Village but has become a bridge between the work of the Theatre of the Ridiculous and mainstream theatre. Like Ludlam, Busch usually appears in drag as the leading lady in his productions. Some of his works, like VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM are direct descendants of Tavel, Vaccaro and Ludlam. Even his movies PSYCHO BEACH PARTY and DIE, MOMMIE, DIE!, can be seen as high budget (though definitely low budget as films go) elaborations of their earlier work. Now Busch is more mainstream. His TALE OF THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE was an Off-Broadway hit.
     What could be a greater sign of Busch's move into the mainstream and into theatre history than the audience at today's performance of his latest play, THE TRIBUTE ARTIST. Most of the audience was over seventy and straight. Even the gay men in the audience were "of an age." At his entrance, Busch received the applause traditionally accorded a star. Yes, he was in drag throughout but, compared to what is available on film and television these days, THE TRIBUTE ARTIST was definitely G-rated. In fact, THE TRIBUTE ARTIST is not only a memento of an earlier era in the history of gay theatre; it is also a homage to old-fashioned theatrical farces.
     Jimmy, the title character in the play (played by Busch) is an unemployed "tribute artist" who made his career doing drag imitations of past divas of the sort drag queens used to love to "do": Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn. Alas, the Vegas audiences now have no idea who these people are, so Jimmy is irrelevant. He is staying with an old friend, Adriana (Cynthia Harris) a wealthy acerbic grande dame on her last legs who owns a lovely Greenwich Village home. When Adriana kicks the bucket, Jimmy and his sidekick Rita (Julie Halston), a lesbian real-estate agent give Adriana's corpse a false I.D. then dress Jimmy up as Adriana until they can sell the house and pocket the $12 million. Since this is a farce of sorts, their plan is complicated by the arrival of Christina (Mary Bacon), Adriana's semi-hysterical niece who thinks she has a legal right to the house, Christiana's transgendered son, formerly daughter,  Oliver (Keira Keeley), and Adriana's shady former lover (Jonathan Walker). All want the proceeds from the house and some catch on to Jimmy's very inconsistent performance as Adriana, a performance, by the way, that is never a very good imitation.
     THE TRIBUTE ARTIST is enjoyable fluff. There are a lot of funny lines and some humorous situations. The problem with the play is that Busch is upstaged by everyone else. He's not camp or outrageous enough to hold his own against his wonderful colleagues. When Busch goes camp and gives us a stew of references to old movies, he's great. As Jimmy, he wants too much to be liked -- too much Harvey Fierstein and not enough of the old Charles Busch. It's as if he's a bit unnerved by performing so close to Park Avenue. We get some of his grand mugging, but it doesn't seem part of a consistent persona. I missed the old outrageous Busch. Julie Halston and Mary Bacon are particularly fine -- worth the price of admission -- and Keira Keeley is completely convincing as the adolescent going through a gender identity crisis. Cynthia Harris's Adriana is another weak link. She's not outrageous or nasty enough (we keep hearing what a bitch she is/was but really don't see it) to give Busch's Jimmy much to work with. Of course that's the playwright's fault as much as the actress's. Harris needs to take a lesson from some of the old soap opera bitch dowagers like the late Jeanne Cooper on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS. I wish Jonathan Walker showed us some sign of the once sexy Rodney. His machinations were much too obvious.
     Carl Andress's staging was too tame, more high comedy than farce. Anna Luizos's set was gorgeous and Gergory Gale's costumes were perfect.
     Fun, but too tame. Even this geriatric audience would have welcomed something more outrageous.
THE TRIBUTE ARTIST by Charles Busch. 59E59 Theatres. March 9, 2014.